Even in the midst of the Holocaust, human goodness could shine through

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (AP)

After reading Laurence Rees’s recently published book, The Holocaust: A New History, certain thoughts come to mind:

We don’t learn anything new about the facts of the Holocaust here, though we do read new eye-witness accounts by people whom Rees has interviewed during 25 years of producing many TV documentaries about the Nazis and WW II. Personal stories are always worth recording, especially when they relate to a true historical event of almost unimaginable horror.

It is chastening to be reminded that in Germany’s secret euthanasia programme, known as “T-4”, which was directed against the elderly, the handicapped and the sick and during which many thousands of victims were gassed, starved to death or given lethal injections, that “No doctor was compelled to participate in this project…but the majority who were asked went along with the scheme…”

However, alongside this I should record the testimony of Tadeusz Smreczynski, a Polish political prison at Mauthausen concentration camp. When the camp was bombed by the Allies and he observed doctors, who were also prisoners, tending the wounded, he had a sudden insight. “I felt that life could only regain sense if you try to do good to other people. I decided that if I survived, I would become a doctor. I was inspired by prisoners who were doctors who were helping others in the camp.”

I am again impressed by the courage of German Jehovah’s Witnesses who “refused to give the Nazi salute, to let their children join the Hitler Youth, to vote in elections and to join the German Army.” This uncompromising stance, not shared by other religious groups, ensured their certain death. When one is dismissive of the odd beliefs of Witnesses who turn up unexpectedly on one’s doorstep it is worth remembering this.

We have to be careful here in Britain not to go in for too much “virtue-signalling” about our own attitude towards the Jews. One Jewish commentator interviewed by Rees, Eugene Levine, actually felt he had experienced more anti-Semitism in Britain in the 1930s than in Germany in the 1920s, stating, “I feel that in the social way the English are more anti-Semitic…As people so often very kindly say, “After all, we don’t gas Jews”. No…But they certainly don’t let them join their golf club.”

(I might add here that since this recent General Election a Jewish friend told me he was very depressed at the amount of votes the Labour Party got; he fears the prospect of Jeremy Corby gaining power because of longstanding anti-Semitic attitudes within certain sections of the Labour Party.)

Finally, Rees shows some ambivalence in his attitude towards Pope Pius XII. While acknowledging that thousands of Italian Jews were saved by the Church under the Pope’s authorisation and while also admitting that reprisals would most likely have followed an explicit public statement condemning the Nazi treatment of the Jews, he still believes the Pope was morally culpable: “What we do know is that if the Pope had spoken out he would have offered moral guidance to the world.”